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The workers’ compensation program in California provides an outlet for workers that suffer illness or injury during job-related tasks. Workers’ compensation also covers losses incurred from the death of a worker, with money given to the surviving family members. While there is no need to prove fault to receive workers’ comp coverage for accidental job-related deaths, such as in vehicle accidents or fatal falls, worker suicide is a different matter. Here are the facts relating to this unique situation.
According to workers’ comp laws, surviving dependents are eligible to receive “death benefits” when a worker dies due to work-related injuries or illness. Death benefits aid surviving family members who suffer harms due to lack of support from the deceased worker. A worker’s spouse, children, and other dependents who relied on the worker for financial support may receive these benefits. Death benefits in California include:
To qualify for workers’ compensation death benefits, the worker must have suffered an injury or illness in connection with work. Workers’ comp comes into play in any case where the injury occurred “in the course of employment.” Previously, suicide was an affirmative defense that deemed a death claim non-compensable. However, a change through the Court of Appeals finds that the court can award benefits when suicide related to an “irresistible or uncontrollable impulse that stems from the industrial injury.”
In April 2017, the wife (Zecole Thomas) and children of an Uber engineer, Joseph Thomas, filed for workers’ compensation death benefits after the man committed suicide. The Thomas family blames Uber’s “aggressive work culture” for her husband’s decline in mental health. Zecole also blames the lack of a diverse staff in the engineering department created an isolating environment for her husband, who was black.
The attorney representing the Thomas family states that stress and harassment at work, as well as isolation and working around the clock caused psychiatric injury resulting in the suicide. The attorney also cites Joseph’s inability to talk about his struggles due to Uber’s nondisclosure agreement. The Thomas family is demanding $722,000 in a lump sum, plus weekly checks of $1,100 until Joseph’s children (currently seven and nine) turn 18.
When an employee commits suicide, the question of death benefits comes down to whether the death stemmed from an industrial injury that caused the irresistible impulse. Testimony from friends and family members of the deceased, as well as other witnesses, will help decide these cases. However, testimony from a medical professional may be necessary to determine industrial causation.
Each workers’ compensation case involving employee suicide will end differently. If the plaintiff can prove the cause of death stemmed from industrial injury, the courts will likely grant the plaintiff death benefits on top of potential awards from a personal injury lawsuit. If, however, there is not enough evidence to the employer at fault, the family may not receive anything from the workers’ compensation program. Seek help from an experienced attorney for information about a specific case.